On Thursday Labour retained the seat of Oldham East and Saddleworth at the by-election called following the disgracing of former Immigration Minister Phil Woolas with a comfortable, if not overwhelming majority. In her acceptance speech winning candidate Debbie Abrahams said it was a ‘wake up call’ to the coalition government.
I hate to play the wicked fairy at the christening, but it is really nothing of the sort. Ms Abrahams, who for a week or so will be feted by her party as the next big political thing, for falling for the hubris of the moment, but Ed Milliband and his team, have no excuse for being so foolish.
However satisfying it is to win a by-election, or even the spot prize at the constituency Christmas dinner dance come to that, following the drubbing they received at the general election, Labour are a long way from being out of trouble.
Despite the best efforts of the media to persuade us otherwise the coalition still shows every sign of holding firm and making it through to the next election. This is due, in no small part, to the discovery by several senior liberal Democrats that they like the trappings of power enough to smother their previously active consciences; but mostly it is due to the failure of Labour to provide a real alternative.
The party lacks policies, direction and even, it would seem, even the most basic conception of what it is for or who it represents. At a time when economics is the biggest game in town the party has chosen Alan Johnson as its shadow chancellor, an affable man with a disarming honesty about his limitations, sadly though it is the very limitations about which he is so honest that have scuppered his credibility.
Then there is the small problem of Ed Milliband himself, I don’t for a moment doubt his intelligence or his commitment to the Labour cause, but his transparently earnest approach seems better suited to the student union than the bear pit of Westminster politics. His appearances at PMQs are no less excruciating than those of Gordon Brown and even his smile seems to be heading in a similarly strange and unsettling direction.
The real problem is that under the leadership of this well meaning, but not particularly effective man, Labour risks turning into the political equivalent of the Church of England. An organisation with faultlessly good intentions and, alas, no idea when it comes to communicating them to the outside world.
If you need an example of this look no further than Milliband’s call in a speech to the Fabian Society for disgruntles Liberal Democrats to join Labour, not a bad idea, but not a viable strategy for winning an election either. Experience should have taught him that when a party based on ideology loses touch with the feelings of its supporters they are more likely to not vote at all than to vote for someone else, as happened within Labour during the Blair years.
The real solution for reviving the Labour Party isn’t to be found in the erudite discussion of the Fabians, instead it has to be sought on the streets and estates of Britain. Put simply Labour has to go back to its roots as a bottom up party that lives its socialism by helping individuals and communities overcome their social and economic problems.
The party leadership, like Ms Abrahams should by all means rejoice in their victory in Oldham East and Saddleworth, but they should see it for what it is; not the beginning of the end of their journey back to power but rather just the end of the beginning of what will be a long and painful journey.